Mary McIntyre’s recent show at Visual in Carlow was a rare opportunity to see a substantial number of large as well as smaller format photographs in the ample space of the main gallery. The show—full title, An Interior Landscape: Mary McIntyre—featured work created since 2002 and is a variation on her show at the MAC in Belfast which took place a year ago. That show was sub-titled A Contemporary Sublime, the catalogue for which, really a book in its own right with reproductions of her landscape photography since 1998, was also available at Carlow. The title for Visual may be adapted from the title of a pre-2002 series which is included in the catalogue but isn’t landscape at all. These are photographs of a studio space which has a small reproduction of a landscape scene on a wall. The above indicates the consistency of McIntyre’s oeuvre even while the focus at Visual is, one might say, en plein air landscape.
The exception to the landscape theme at Visual is in the form of two installations which were made specifically for the space. One is a tall, cylindrical structure draped in heavy, grey fabric. The title Within Without echoes the exhibition title, hints at an unknown or unknowable, and is somewhat to spite the title’s adjunct — (After Vito Hannibal Acconci) – a reference to an artist not normally associated with sublimity! The second installation uses the same grey fabric this time as a more conventionally drawn curtain which was extended across a gallery wall. Entitled, Another Quality of Melancholy, it is less about inside/outside and more about a visible side which is bound to the other, invisible side; narrow but unfathomable depth is suggested. The curtains perhaps most directly signal the Veil Series of photographs, represented here by Veil I, Veil IV, 2006, and Veil XV 2008. The exceptionally small format, Withdrawing Veils of Sound I 2010, might be included within this theme. The Veils are of seashores and flatish landscapes shrouded in mist while ‘sound’ might allude to the birds which are barely discernible on the shallow water below the horizon line. For Suzanne Chan in her catalogue essay this image is as close to the sublime as it gets. Unlike other Northern Irish art photographers, McIntyre does not identify her locations with specific names or unique features. The seascapes could be lough-scapes for the literature on McIntyre suggests that these scenes are within Northern Ireland; we don’t know where precisely. Chan suggests a more general and material context in contrasting this sublime with the more usual association of landscapes in these parts with conflict.
For the exhibition at Visual McIntyre seems to be consciously working through not only the concept of the sublime but also the genre of landscape painting from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. If the exhibition can be said to begin at the main entrance to the gallery space, an establishing set is three small format photographs, Forest Entrance (after Jacob Van Ruisdael) 2002, Morning Landscape 2011, and Flooded Tree (after Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot) 2006. All three use the landscape, particularly trees, to utilize the diagonals and triangles which were extrapolated from the panoramic view in the composition making that is the hallmark of the classic period of European landscape painting. Forest Entrance is one of the few works in this exhibition that shows human construction within the picture frame; in this case a road cuts a diagonal along the bottom of the frame. Another is Over, and on and Up II 2012, where a garden fence and pigeon compound runs from a bottom corner of the frame diagonally upwards and out the opposite side which establishes a border between a typical suburban garden and thick woodland beyond. A common factor in the show is that there is no physical human presence, just the imprint that people make on the environment.
Despite McIntyre’s highly pointed citing of the traditions of landscape painting, the majority of the large format works in Interior Landscape owe more to modernist painting. The Veil Series is reminiscent of post-war American painting where the vaguely defined image of land and sky sit on the surface of the photograph. The optical experience for the viewer is of a play of surface variations rather than of depth or recession towards a vanishing point. This leads to the curtains because while they are reminiscent of minimalism, the folds form shallow spaces that have a potential for limitless variation each time they are drawn. The tone of Interior Landscape is of autumn and winter; no summer lushness here. At the same time, the landscape is not exposed to the full fury of the elements. The scenes are of woods and waters in relatively gentle weather conditions. The absence of full summer foliage, in particular in Veil XV, means that the trees and undergrowth form patterns against earth, water, and sky which begs comparison with all-over drip and splatter paintings. But in the end, paint and pixels are very different mediums to work with.
McIntyre has professed her interest in the technical organization of space in painting and the sublime as the name assigned to unknowable but life-changing experience. She will recognize that bridging the gap is the more difficult proposition. But as an artist whose primary medium is photography she will also recognize the importance of the technical aspects of photography in creating medium-specific aesthetics. In 1994 Benjamin Buchloh noted that the emergence of a generation of art photographers had revived the genres of portraiture and landscape which had declined with modernism. During that decade technical developments allowed for large format, colour, digital photographs which could be displayed with Plexiglas mounts that eliminated the reflections and glare of glass display. As one stands before the large format image objects lose form as pixilation takes over. In McIntyre’s Veil Series the loss of objecthood becomes a collapse of subjecthood as the viewer loses a sense of the space of the actual landscape and succumbs to the lack of a ‘proper’ viewing position. The obvious comparison here is with similar images in what has been highly successfully branded as the Düsseldorf School of Photography.